Food & Drink

An Oyster Primer

by James Fox June 18, 2018
ReadAn Oyster Primer

“An oyster is a fish built like a nut.” – Anonymous

Whether fried, grilled, poached, pickled or smoked, made Rockefeller-style (baked with herbs, butter and breadcrumbs) or in the Florentine tradition (swap in spinach rather than herbs), oysters are a surprisingly versatile bunch. My father taught me how to shuck the primal foodstuff by the time I was 15 years old (as well as the secret to mixing a martini, but that is for another time).

According to Chris Sherman, president of Island Creek Oysters, “Shucking is one of those sneaky life skills that you may not use everyday but secretly take great pride in when you effortlessly pull it off. I can picture Ernest Hemingway with a cigar dangling out of his mouth and his sleeves rolled up, oyster knife glinting in the afternoon sun, dominating a couple dozen Belons on some pre-war Parisian terrace. Any man worth his salt can open an oyster.”

The oyster is a bivalve mollusk enclosed in a shell made of calcium carbonate. They are usually farmed (known as aquaculture) for consumption, and harvested at three inches to handful-sized, which is usually when the oyster is at three to four years old. (As with tree rings, one can estimate the age of an oyster from external “growth lines.”) Like the New England lobster, oysters are in the long line of working man’s food that has now become a luxury. They were a cheap food staple from Victorian Britain through 20th-century America due to their portability and high protein-to-cost ratio.

The association of oysters being an aphrodisiac was born with Aphrodite, the Greek goddess of love, who sprang forth from the sea on an oyster shell. In fact, they are high in zinc, for which a deficiency can lead to impotence – though there is little scientific evidence for the fortifying fable of oysters increasing, ahem, drive.


“Standing around the kitchen, shucking for a bunch of family and friends is way more fun than just putting an icy plate down on the table,” says Chris. “Oysters bring people together in a way that most other food doesn’t.”

First, you need the right tool for the job. One common misconception is that duller is safer (this is true of clams, however). A blunt tip requires extra force to get into the hinge, and that ends up being riskier than its sharper competition. Whichever knife you choose, you want a sturdy one with a good point. Another option: the curved point for plenty of leverage at the hinge.

Stabber method: Using an inflexible pointed knife (sometimes called a Chesapeake stabber knife), stab between where the shells meet at front and lever shells open. Industrial shuckers use this method, along with a pair of puncture-proof gloves.

Lollipop or hinge method (Kaufmann approved): Find the hinge of the oyster and slide in the knife, tilting slightly until you hear the hinge “pop.” Scrape the top of the oyster to cut the upper abductor muscle, then slide the blade through the bottom muscle. Style points for finishing with a “Philly Flip,” a trick move of flipping the meat over to showcase the smoother side of the flesh in the “cup,” or lower curved shell, while concealing any tears that may have occurred during opening. (As for Philly, the city had almost 400 oyster houses by late 19th-century.) This maneuver also lets you check that no shell flakes have fallen into the “liquor” (the liquid inside the shell) that surrounds the shucked oyster.

Union Oyster House method: Insert your knife at the back hinge and invert the oyster – tap the butt of the knife down on a stone so the point splits the hinge. Release the oyster from its top shell, leaving it attached to the bottom shell, or “cup,” so it is alive until served and slurped down. Wear thick gloves – the folks at Union Oyster House know what they’re doing. (The Boston establishment has been open since 1827, making it the oldest continually operating restaurant in the U.S.)

HOW TO SERVE: A Glossary

Cocktail Sauce – Purists say no. This ain’t shrimp cocktail, folks. Nor should oysters be a horseradish delivery system.

Ice – It is traditional to serve oysters on a bed of ice, echoing the retail tradition of keeping them on ice to prolong their life. Unless you have crushed ice at home, you will find they can be hard to place firmly on cubes. Instead, cover the platter with snow, or ask your fishmonger for some seaweed and place that over the ice cubes to create a sturdy surface.

Lemon – Wedge. Squeeze. Done.

Merroir – water in which oysters grow and get their flavor – like terrior.

Mignionette – a mixture of red wine vinegar, finely chopped shallots and cracked black pepper. A few drops can be spooned onto your shucked oyster, more often for raw clams. Many variations around; try champagne vinegar or – why not – just add champagne and maybe some finely chopped jalapeno…

When in doubt (i.e. you can’t shuck worth a damn), throw them on a hot grill and let the heat do the work! What to do with the shells? Crush them on the driveway for that Cape Cod look, or give them to your chickens to strengthen their eggshells, or add to your soil for extra calcium… An amazing product!

Kumamotos or Olympias? What’s your oyster of choice and which knife is your favorite?

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